(Spoiler Alert: This blog post contains spoilers about the Netflix TV show Making a Murderer. If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you do that first, before reading anything about it, anywhere).
Like about a gazillion other people out there, I recently watched Making a Murderer on Netflix with my jaw resting comfortably on the floor. There are many reasons why the show is so fascinating. The main one being that you could easily craft a theory of Steven Avery being guilty, or of Steven Avery being innocent, and they would both sound about equally plausible.
It’s also disturbing on a number of levels. Living in a first world country does often lead many people to lose sight of how valuable, and how fragile, our liberty really is. You’re free, until you’re not. I had a thought while watching the show, and I believe one of his lawyers said this as well, that you almost have to hope that Steven Avery is guilty. Because the thought of spending 18 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit is enough to chill anyone to the bone. Now imagine finally being free thanks to DNA evidence, proving to the world you’re innocent, and standing on the verge of a multi-million dollar payment, and suddenly you’re sent back to jail for life for a second crime you didn’t commit. Framed by a couple of guys who ignored evidence you were innocent 8 years before you got out the first time. And be forced to acknowledge that the only thing that can get you out (the justice system) is completely broken. That’s almost too much for one human being to bear. This is your life, Steven Avery.
The evidence against Avery is about as fucked-up as everything else in this case. There’s not a lot of it, and most of it is tainted with some kind of what-if, but there are several direct pieces of “evidence”, and a number of other facts and circumstantial evidence that fairly strongly support the idea of guilty. I won’t go through all of it here, but you can find all the details of the case at www.stevenaverycase.com, and follow new developments on the Reddit sub-forum at www.reddit.com/r/makingamurderer. Even if you acknowledge that most of the evidence was bungled, law enforcement could not have acted less professionally, and this case is full of bizarre coincidences, added together there is probably enough evidence here to make a reasonable case for a guilty verdict.
But then you start to think about the key. A murder victim’s car key, found in a suspect’s home, with his DNA on it … that’s pretty damning stuff. Until you hear that it contained Avery’s DNA, but not Teresa’s. And realize that it wasn’t found until the 7th time law enforcement officers entered that trailer. Now not all of them were searches, but at least a couple were, including one that was two and a half hours long. And apparently nobody decided to look under a pair of slippers or behind a small end table, until the 7th time officers were on the premises, which just happened to coincide with the arrival on the scene of the world’s two luckiest/unluckiest police officers of all time, James Lenk and Andrew Colborn. How about a road trip movie where these two guys travel across America framing people and planting evidence? “Your Honor, it’s a miracle, but Sgt. Lenk found O.J.’s second bloody glove and a signed confession in a blood-stained briefcase that nobody noticed before on Nicole’s kitchen table. The weird thing is that Andy Colborn’s driver’s license was found inside the briefcase, and the blood DNA is a match for Jimmy Hoffa”. I would pay to watch that!
GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT
Once the realization sinks in that the key was probably planted, all bets are off. Now my personal assessment of a man’s character based on watching a few video clips is probably not going to hold up in court, but nobody looked more guilty of something in this entire series than James Lenk. And what about the bullet? Found in the garage after many searches and after many months, coincidentally on a day that Lenk just happened to once again arrive on the scene. Also, what about Steven Avery’s blood in the victim’s Rav4? No, these two guys were nowhere near that crime scene, at least. Just kidding. Of course they were there! Lenk arrived either in broad daylight around 2:00pm or in darkness around 7:00pm (depending on which of his sworn statements you choose to believe), and Colborn made a bizarre (recorded) call to the office from his cell phone that sounded an awful lot like he was reading Teresa Halbach’s license plate right off the back of a Toyota Rav4, a couple of days before it was found. They had access to Avery’s blood from multiple sources including a vial in a package where the seal was found broken, and oh God what the hell is going on in the state of Wisconsin?!
Did I mention that no members of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department were supposed to be anywhere near this investigation from the very beginning due to potential conflict of interest? And that instructions were specifically given to keep them away?
The fact remains that there was a $36 million lawsuit ongoing regarding wrongful imprisonment, an amount they may not have been able to pay. The whole thing was extremely embarrassing for Manitowoc County Law Enforcement and a number of prominent people within, who also happened to be friendly with quite a few people tangentially involved in this case. And while Lenk and Colborn weren’t directly involved in Avery’s wrongful arrest in 1985, they both did ignore evidence of Avery’s innocence in his first case, are connected to those named in the lawsuit, and were on the scene every time actual physical evidence was discovered. There are a number of people in the area who hated Steven Avery, for several reasons including his actions towards the wife of a local police officer when he was a young man. The more you dig into the evidence, the more you encounter a spiderweb of potential friendships, grudges and back rubs. Manitowoc County appears to be a wretched hive of scum and villainy.
And just when you conclude that The People vs. Steven Avery is the strangest court case you’ve ever seen in your life, you begin watching the next episode and encounter The People vs. Brendan Dassey. On the “he’s guilty” side of the ledger, you basically have one thing: his confession. Of course, that is a pretty incriminating thing to have. Except when you don’t. Dassey’s confession videotape literally defies logic. Dassey also allegedly made a couple of cryptic comments to his cousin (story later recanted), and to his mother. Some of these suggest that Dassey did see something suspicious the day of the murder, but most are also contradicted by something he said on a different day.
Then there’s the case for Dude, This is Pretty Fucked Up Right Here. On the “not guilty” side: there is no physical evidence. And when I say there is no physical evidence, I mean there is literally no physical evidence. Certainly not of the things alleged in Brendan’s sordid “confession”. He did have some bleach on his pants that may have got there while he was helping Steven clean up a stain in the garage. That’s it.
He was 16 years old, with a learning disability, and manipulated badly by two police officers who keep refusing to accept his answers when he tries to tell them he wasn’t involved during the interrogation, then lead him to tell a crazy story that doesn’t make any sense, and doesn’t match the evidence. The scene where they ask about the gun, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than he is literally making up the answers because he has no idea what they want him to say. Until they finally become exasperated and tell him what he’s supposed to say. There are many ambivalent things about this case, but it’s extremely difficult to believe this confession is a legitimate depiction of any real events. Even the prosecution seemed embarrassed by this evidence, and during Steven’s trial, D.A. Ken Kratz states that, “All of the evidence pointed to one person”: Steven Avery. And yet Brendan Dassey isn’t eligible for parole until 2048. I still feel kind of haunted by the clip of him during the interrogation process, asking if he’ll be able to get home in time to watch a particular TV show. That was 2006: he still hasn’t gone home.
The show contains many elements you could not include in a fictional book, movie, or TV show, because nobody would believe them. There’s Brendan’s initial legal team, actively working for the Prosecution. Len, tell me about the rabbits. Hey man, Fargo called and it wants its character back. Then there’s The Ribbon: sorry, but I have to stop here for a second, and just reflect (sob) … There’s the Voicemail Messages: how did those guys figure out Teresa’s password, why do they have such weird looks on their faces, and how many messages did they delete? And there’s the odd behaviour of Scott Tadych and Bobby Dassey: Something just doesn’t feel right about their stories, and Tadych is just a weird dude who makes everyone feel uncomfortable every time he opens his mouth. And also when he doesn’t.
I thought it was a little strange that I had a bit of a man-crush on the defense team of Dean Strang and Jerome Buting while viewing the series. But apparently I’m not the only one. I’m a Strang Man myself, but let’s be honest, they’re both dreamy.
AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
Ultimately, of course it is possible that both things are true: Avery is guilty of the crime, and evidence was planted by the police. In fact, it probably happens more than we’d like to believe, often in cases where the police are convinced somebody’s guilty, and are just “helping” the case along. There is also no doubt that the filmmakers were sympathetic to Steven Avery’s side of the argument. But to me it’s pretty clear that while Avery had issues with anger and violence, and certainly could have committed this crime, he received neither a fair trial nor any expectation of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”. His story has stayed remarkably consistent, and he probably deserves a re-trial. There are simply too many coincidences and question marks about that original trial, and I didn’t even get around to discussing the allegations of impropriety regarding the jurors in that case. And here’s a no-brainer: Brendan Dassey should get a new trial, immediately. In fact, it should have been granted on first appeal. There’s an above 50% chance that he was coerced into the statement, there’s no actual physical evidence his story is true, and his initial legal team should be disbarred.
Is there any way that justice can still be found for both Teresa Halbach and Steven Avery? Kathleen Zellner is now representing Steven (and she has a long history of success), so it’s pretty clear this story isn’t over yet. She has hinted on Twitter that new evidence will exonerate Steven. There are discussions on-going regarding the making of a second season of the show. And in a case with this many bizarre twists and turns, it seems pretty unlikely we’ve seen the last one yet.